The debate was long (more than seven hours), emotional (one bishop wept) and often bitter (“we’re being squeezed out”, said one Anglo-Catholic). But yesterday’s decision of General Synod, the Church of England’s ruling body, was clear: there will be women bishops after 2014. Most importantly, opponents of the move will not be accommodated by “flying bishops” or a separate diocese, because these would amount to institutionalised discrimination. The BBC provides useful background to the votes here.
The reaction of the Anglo-Catholic rump of the Church of England – more than a thousand priests had threatened to walk out if they were refused separate structures – will no doubt follow in the next few days, while they consider their position. Synod agreed a “national statutory code of practice” to be drawn up next year to mollify traditionalists, but it will not be enough to satisfy the demands of either Anglo-Catholics or conservative evangelicals. John Broadhurst, the Bishop of Fulham and a leading Anglo-Catholic, told the BBC after the debate that the decision could lead to traditionalists leaving. “I think a lot of us have made it quite clear if there isn’t proper provision for us to live in dignity, inevitably we’re driven out," he said.
The C of E’s two leading bishops – Dr Rowan Williams (Canterbury) and John Sentamu (York) were in favour of structural accommodation for objectors. Dr Sentamu supported plans for “superbishops” – a sort of flying bishop Mark II -- while Dr Williams wanted "more rather than less robust" legislation (but was “deeply unhappy with any scheme or any solution to this which ends up, as it were, structurally humiliating women who might be nominated to the episcopate”).
Their pleas were ignored. The Church of England’s government really is a democracy.
The Bishop of Durham -- the great Scripture scholar, Tom Wright -- said such a vital and sensitive debate should not have taken place a week before the Lambeth Conference, the once-a-decade gathering of the world’s Anglican bishops which opens later this month under the shadow of a developing-world evangelical rebellion. Wright captured something of the tragic pathos of the current Anglican disintegration. “There might be some things that we might eventually have to split over,” he said. “This should not be one of them."
As the Anglican holding-operation is being tested as never before, the Archbishop of Canterbury is urging patience, listening, and prudence, while gently chiding those on either side who want to rush ahead without waiting for others. He knows that pushing the agenda of either reformers or evangelicals too far will break the fragile alliance between Catholic and Protestant, liberal and conservative, while leaving the Anglo-Catholics caught in a pincer movement.
There remains real admiration in the Church of England for Dr Williams and his efforts. When the Archbishop of York, John Sentamu, criticised at Synod the way evangelical Anglicans in Jerusalem had “scapegoated” the Archbishop of Canterbury, his comments drew strong applause. The crisis is also producing from Rowan Williams some very powerful reflections – not least the sermon he gave at York Minster last Sunday, which used the metaphor of the “waterless pit” into which Joseph was thrown by his envious brothers to describe the feelings of those who were being sidelined in the Anglican decisions. The Times religious correspondent, Ruth Gledhill, blogging from the pews, described people in tears.
But so far – namely, in the new evangelical communion-within-a-communion formed recently in Jerusalem, and now the decision not to accommodate the opponents of women bishops – Dr Williams’s pleas are being ignored, and the waterless pit is getting bigger.